Monday, November 19, 2012

Head Games

HEAD GAMES (Steve James, 2012)

In the documentary HEAD GAMES sports journalist Bob Costas says, “In most other sports the chance of injury is incidental.  In football the chance of injury and long term serious effects is fundamental, and no honest person can watch this sport and not acknowledge that.”  If Costas is right, there are a lot of dishonest or, at best, willfully ignorant sports fans and commentators.  Spend enough time watching football games or listening to sports talk radio and inevitably complaints of protective rules making the game too soft will surface.  Go to a sports bar on any fall Saturday or Sunday and at some point you’ll likely hear patrons, if not the announcers, bellowing about how an unnecessary roughness penalty is uncalled for or how a dazed player isn’t tough enough.  

Violence, especially in the highlight reel hits, is a significant part of football’s appeal, but after seeing HEAD GAMES, one wonders if the long term viability of the sport is threatened as consequences of such brutal repetitive contact become better understood.  It doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility that years down the line enough debilitated former players or their families sue the professional league into oblivion or the pipeline of participants dries up because concerned parents refuse to allow their children to play.   

Director Steve James draws from Chris Nowinski’s book HEAD GAMES: FOOTBALL’S CONCUSSION CRISIS and The New York Times reporter Alan Schwarz’s investigative writings to examine the effects of brain trauma experienced in the normal course of playing football, hockey, and soccer.  (Boxing is touched upon in one heart-rending section but is largely absent from the conversation, probably because public awareness of that sport’s dangers are widely acknowledged.)  Nowinski, an All-Ivy defensive tackle at Harvard and former WWE wrestler, was motivated to learn more about concussions after an injury forced him to retire.  He and others have found that concussions are much more commonplace, even among youth and college players, and that former National Football League players are at significantly higher risk for chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which can lead to premature dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease.

HEAD GAMES is an important film for those who play and watch sports.  It explains what the symptoms of a concussion are, what happens in the brain during the trauma, and how to proceed if receiving the injury.  Education of players, coaches, and trainers won’t eliminate concussions, but it can help them to identify when someone should be pulled from competition for personal safety.

Still, all the information in the world won’t matter if a culture change in sports doesn’t occur.  Whether it’s internal motivation or pressure from coaches and fans, athletes often feel obligated to play through injuries and will not report them, especially if it means losing a spot on the field or having one’s toughness questioned.  

Although HEAD GAMES is an advocacy documentary that criticizes the NFL in particular for being slow to accept scientific findings on concussions, James and his subjects aren’t crusading for the end of football or other games that present the risk of head trauma. The film struggles with the contradiction of knowing the serious risks while enjoying the games as participant and spectator.

Grade: B 

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